Chappal Strike, a play on shooter Counter-Strike, is a student-made game in which the player launches chappals — Pakistani sandals — to take down army helicopters. The game is rooted in one of Pakistan's darkest moments of 2016.
On March 27, 2,000 protesters, culled mainly from the extremist sectarian party Sunni Tehreek, descended on the Parliament House in Islamabad to oppose the execution of Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri was a former bodyguard on trial for assassinating Punjab’s governor at the time, Salmaan Taseer.
The killing occurred in broad daylight. Qadri lowered his weapon and was immediately detained. In police custody, he confessed that he killed Governor Taseer because he was upset about Taseer’s attempts to reign in or repeal Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (a highly contentious moral issue in Pakistan).
Many Pakistanis took to Twitter to voice their displeasure with the protesters. Hashtags like #IslamabadUnderSeige and #TeachingsofMyProphet trended with tweets that contained sadness, grief and sarcastic comments about the protesting "molvis" and "mullahs" (the words for cleric in Urdu that are used derisively as slang).
Then on March 29, a YouTube video appeared of the protestors flinging their sandals at army helicopters. The resulting hashtag #AntiAircraftChappal inspired the game.
Shayan Saghir put the game on Facebook — and says he made it as a joke.
"I thought people would laugh over it, maybe it would get 80 to 100 likes and shares and things [would] move on," says Saghir. "Within a few minutes of posting it, I started getting an overwhelming response. Facebook celebs like [stand-up comedian] Junaid Akram and [musician] Ali Sufian Wasif liked and shared it."
The Pakistani Google Play store has pages of games that are similarly inspired by political events. From protests against election rigging being turned into infinite runners to political cronyism being turned into a fighting game, these games from young Pakistani creators are using the medium to poke fun at politicians and public figures. Almost all of these games are free.
Yet on the opposite end of things, there also exists a mainstream Pakistani game industry. There are multiple local studios that work with large overseas clients like Disney Interactive and Zynga. This work can include animation, porting games to various devices, QA testing or designing DLC. For example, it was Lahore-based Caramel Tech that handled the Android and Facebook ports of the iOS hit Fruit Ninja.
Being an entrepreneur anywhere is risky, but life in Pakistan presents specific challenges. Nevertheless, some have developed strategies to make it work.
Love and cricket
The major players in Pakistan’s game industry are the first ones in their field. And that, in part, has to do with funding. Years ago, if you wanted to start a game company in Pakistan, there wasn’t always an established route to start.
"Bringing venture capital to Pakistan is one of the hardest things you can think of," says Babar Ahmed of Mindstorm Studios, one of Pakistan's largest studios.
In 2008, Ahmed, his brother and a circle of friends managed to convince Ahmed's mother to sell her car, and they used the money to found Mindstorm. "I had just turned 26. We were based out of a room at the time," Ahmed says.
Mindstorm was not the first studio formed in Pakistan, but it was the first to be lucrative. Mindstorm’s first hit was Cricket Revolution, an arcade-style take on the sport, which was greenlit on Steam in 2009.
Ahmed saw the limited Cricket options on Steam and the Google Play store, despite the sport’s global audience. "We just thought there was a gap in the market," he says.
When his team finished the game, the group realized it was far from finished.
"We had to learn very quickly that making the product is maybe 20 percent of running a business."
The team had a game, but hadn’t wrapped its heads around how to publicize or promote it. To make matters worse, Ahmed’s attempts to sell the game to a publisher abroad were unfruitful. He flew to India, where there is a substantially larger game industry than the one in Pakistan, in hopes to partner up with companies there. But his attempts to reach an agreement with them failed.
"I got many pats on the back and [people saying 'well done'] but my efforts weren’t being converted into anything meaningful," he says.
This set Ahmed down a path of deductive reasoning.
"Clearly, no one pays for content in Pakistan; everything is pirated," he says. "So I looked at the biggest spenders in the space, and one of the bigger spenders in Pakistani cricket is Pepsi. So I contacted the marketing company who handles their account."
He still remembers his pitch.
"I said, look, instead of paying a million dollars on a team commercial that runs all month, let me build Pepsi into the game where you can offer the game for free, so it’s a long-tail marketing strategy," he says. "They gave us a large sum of money to develop the game."
Mindstorm Studios had done the unthinkable. It had found a way to monetize a game in Pakistan.
Through the relationship with Pepsi, Ahmed ended up meeting a board member of the International Cricket Council in Lahore in 2011. "We were smoking shisha, and I showed him the game," says Ahmed. "And he loved it. That’s how we got the official license for the ICC World Cup over EA."
Ahmed had his second windfall. Cricket is the most widely watched game in Pakistan, and the country hosted many World Cup matches prior to 2011 when it lost its hosting rights due to security concerns. When news spread that a Pakistani game development company was behind the official ICC cricket game, Mindstorm began getting media attention.
"One day there were a lot of news vans outside of my house," says Ahmed. When he was interviewed by on-air TV news reporters, he says their reaction was one of disbelief.
"We were mostly asked questions like, 'are you actually the developer of the official ICC game,' or 'are you actually from Pakistan,' and the story ceased to be about the game."
"The challenge for us was removing the stigma of being from Pakistan," he says.
Today, the company is headquartered in San Francisco with another office Lahore. Ahmed says he made the shift from Lahore to the Bay Area largely because of business opportunities, though also saw benefits for his family.
"It’s sad, but for people like myself who want to do something positive in Pakistan, you’re eventually driven out by something or the other. For me, it was my kid. I didn’t want to be raising my kid in that messed up school system," he says.
Ahmed says it’s very hard for people with skills that are in demand to justify staying in Pakistan.
"Particularly given how flat the world is, if you’re a person who has opportunities [elsewhere] but you’re in Pakistan, it’s hard to justify staying. It’s not just me. My whole network feels this," he says.
[After this story went live, Bahar spoke to Polygon saying that he has recently become more optimistic about Pakistan’s game industry: “While Pakistan’s many game developers face an uphill task, particularly with a nascent local market, the industry is nearing a tipping point with a multitude of small game development teams surfacing across the country, inspired by a handful of very successful multimillion dollar studios in Pakistan's main cities with a global outreach.”]
Mindstorm’s Lahore office employs nearly 50 people in Pakistan and is now best known for War Inc., a mobile strategy game. It has Cricket Revolution and the team's ambitions to thank for it.
According to a recent government report, Pakistan is one of the most youthful countries in the world, but the resources for the 104 million Pakistanis under the age of 30 are well below those of their neighbors in India and China.
This impacts its game industry in many ways. For one, besides introductory classes, there aren’t any programs dedicated to game design. In major cities like Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, however, there are tech incubators that offer consultation help to start-ups. These incubators have occasionally helped produce games.
Babar Ahmed serves on the board of Plan9, Pakistan’s largest tech incubator started by members of the private sector and Punjab’s Information Technology Board.
"I visit startups very regularly to hopefully make one-off hits," he says, "because the belief is that if we can blow the numbers out of the water with a few successes, the government is going to wake up. The government is going to help us."
In 2014, the Pakistan Software Houses Association, Google and Samsung (with some grant money from the U.S. State Department) collaborated on a tech incubator called The Nest i/o in Karachi.
One of The Nest’s recent incubatees is Wondertree, which makes augmented reality games that run with a Kinect for special needs children. The Nest’s program manager, Rumaisa Mughal, worked her way through other companies before forming her own game studio, Artboard.
After graduating from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Mughal joined a software studio called Pi Labs in 2012. Pi-Labs created an officially licensed Garfield game based on its engine for the game Candy Pot. Candy Pot had gotten attention for winning a silver award at the 2012 Asia Pacific ICT Awards in Brunei.
With Artboard, Mughal set out to create the visual team she could have used when she was the only designer on staff.
She found her teammates from a graduating class of Indus Valley. One of Artboard's early projects was making a game for the animated film, "3 Bahadur," which released with substantial promotion and fanfare.
Amna Saleem, one of the students hired by Artboard, says her university inadequately prepared her for the demands of being a game designer.
"It was surprising. I graduated as a design student, but I knew very little about game design. There’s a huge gap," she says. "There aren’t even UI/UX courses being offered, so I had to familiarize myself with a lot through Rumaisa."
She says most design students rely on YouTube tutorials.
"If a graphic designer wants to be self-sufficient and learn how to code apps and websites, they have to take courses online and learn on their own," says Saleem.
Saleem’s teammate, Anem Irfan, also got her start in the game industry after working on "3 Bahadur" when she joined Artboard in 2013.
Irfan has done art and illustrations for a number mobile games since then, including a Candy Crush clone for the Pakistani candy company Jojo. Irfan says a lot of the work she takes on is outsourced.
Amna Saleem thinks a big hurdle for the games industry in Pakistan is what she sees as a lack of creative ambition.
"There are very few developers in Pakistan who have realized the potential of games. Anything could be gamified, but people are only creating content to promote other consumer products," says Saleem.
Rumaisa Mughal says her work, and that of her colleagues, is not accurately valued by local clients, which drives them to partner with foreign companies. This is because in Pakistan, talent is cheap.
"The market is saturated here, so they often don’t want to pay you, or they disregard written agreements," she says.
Trying to make a "truly Pakistani" IP
We R Play is a game studio that formed in Islamabad in 2010. The studio made a name for itself providing services, producing art and animation, testing code and performing QA, for the likes of Kiwi, Zynga, Pocket Gems, Disney Interactive and Chillingo.
"Most of our revenue comes from the work we do with others; that’s what keeps operations sustainable when it comes to making our own IPs," says Mohsin Afzal, the company’s CEO.
The company now employs 95 people and specializes in brainstorming DLC for major properties to keep engagement up.
The studio also has a dedicated department developing original IPs. One of those is an endless 3D runner targeted at the local masses, Run Sheeda Run.
The game’s characters include Sheeda, "an average, lazy kind of desi boy," in Afzal’s words, Sheeda’s pet chicken, and the butcher they are running away from. "We didn’t want any kind of overbearing moral message, which really holds back a lot of IPs in Pakistan," he says.
The runner takes place in a cartoonish rendering of the Old City portion of Lahore, launched with an online comic and has a theme song on the way.
"We figured we had that skillset and saw that there wasn’t anyone doing high-quality local content," he says. "The rationale behind that was we got 3G and affordable smartphones. While monetization is very hard, user acquisition is very cheap."
Currently, We R Play is finalizing plans for RSR’s sequel. "The follow-up will have much better tech. The core gameplay is still based around running, but there will be more of a story element with missions-based gameplay and an open world to take it further," he says. "There will be more cities and a lot more content."
Unlike many of its peers, We R Play has its eyes set on "making it" in Pakistan. Afzal admits there’s a lack of an industry in Pakistan, but he sees that open space as an opportunity.
“We’re very focused on Pakistan for the near-mid future. There’s a lot of room in this space for us right now,” he says. “It’s an open playing field.”
Update: In the original version of this story, we relied upon certain interviews that happened many months before publication, and as a result we mistakenly reported out-of-date facts. We reported that Mindstorm has offices in Houston and Dubai, which is no longer true. We also noted that Whacksy Taxi was Mindstorm’s most popular game, which is no longer true. Additionally, Mindstorm’s Babar Ahmed says he misspoke in his original interview for this story, and the main reason his company moved its headquarters to the U.S. was because of business opportunities, not for family reasons. He also says that despite some of his comments in this story, he has become more optimistic about Pakistan’s game industry in recent months, in part due to the Pakistan Software Houses Association helping exempt game companies from a software export tax. We have updated the story to reflect these details.